As Cool As I Am

A Novel

Pete Fromm

Picador

ONE

Holding his truck door open was my job, dangling there waiting for him and Mom to get it over with. In winter, it was always dark, the reflection of the headlights all we had, the last-gasp reach of the porch bulb, exhaust fog thick and wreathy around us. It was summer now, the air heavy and green-smelling, the sun almost up over the Highwoods, the sky white with it, but he was still leaving.
When they finally came slinking out of the house, I was still hanging off the end of his door like some kind of ornament. Even though Mom was all laughy and leaning on him, her legs these lethal flashes through the slit of her midnight skirt, Dad was looking at me, his usual what-in-the-world-will-happen-to-us-next grin gone AWOL. He kind of barely smiled, sad almost, and I knew Mom had ratted me out.
He peeled himself away from her, and I caught the narrowing of her eyes, her turn toward the mountains, her sudden interest in the day's progress.
``Hey, Luce,'' Dad said, bending down eye to eye.
I kept ahold of his truck door and looked out toward the mountains, same as Mom.
He brushed his thumb and finger down the sides of my face, stopping at my chin, gently turning my head. ``Why the sourpuss?''
I rolled my eyes.
Letting go of my chin, he gave the top of my buzz cut a rub, the fresh-chopped hair stiff and bristly against his hand. ``Mame here says you want me to stay.''
I fired a razor-edged glance her way.
Dad waggled my head, making me look at him again. ``This is what I do, Luce.''
``Leave?''
He nodded. ``Sometimes. I mean, I got to put the bacon in the bank, don't I? But every time I leave, what does that mean?'' He waited, but I wouldn't say anything. ``It means I come back, doesn't it? It means we get to have these great big partyland reunions.''
Our it-just-can't-be-beat-to-all-be-together gala events. ``We could do that every day if you stayed,'' I said.
Dad stood up, rummaging in his pocket, pulling out a handful of change. He thumbed through the pennies in his palm, pushing aside a bunch of dull ones until he found a brand-new one, shiny as, well, a new penny. ``See this here?'' he said, flipping the penny into the air with a flick of his thumbnail. ``This is us, always new, always fresh, always fun.'' He caught the penny and held it out to me. ``These others,'' he went on, riffling through the motley crowd of copper veterans, ``never go anywhere, just stick around together all the time.'' He held them close to my ear. ``Can you hear them? Yawning? Snoring? They haven't thought of a new thing to say to each other in years.''
I took the shiny penny from him.
``You keep that,'' he said. ``Lock it up in your private drawer. See what happens.''
``Nobody's locking you up,'' I muttered.
``Ho ho,'' he laughed, rustling his hand over my head again. ``Sharp as a bowling bowl, Mame, this kid of ours.''
I couldn't help a smile. ``You go to Canada and all I get is this lousy penny?''
He reached for his wallet and shook it upside down. Two singles fell free, floating to the ground. I picked them up. Leaving for months, driving hundreds of miles, thousands, to a place nobody would ever study in any geography class, and he had two dollars.
``You've raised a holdup artist, Mame,'' he said. ``The two of you should take up stagecoaches, banks.'' As I stood studying the worn-out bills, Dad lunged at me, sweeping me up under his arm, holding me to him desperate-tight. ``Don't shoot!'' he yelled, ``or the kid gets it!''
``Chuck,'' Mom said. Just the way she said his name, I could hear how I was too old to be swung around this way anymore. She's as tall as I am, for crying out loud. All the figure of a snake, but still.
Dad edged around to the passenger side of the truck, swinging the door open behind his back, turning to throw me in. Make his getaway.
I tightened my body into a torpedo, arms clamped to my sides, legs fused into a tail, not the least thing sticking out that might stop me outside that door. I had never in my whole life been as excited as at that one second, when I thought he might take me with him.

cf0But at the last possible instant, Dad swung me up and away. ``It's a trap!'' he yelled. ``She's wired! You thought you had me, didn't you?'' He charged at Mom and, without a word of warning, threw me at her, yelling, ``You'll have to get up earlier than that to eat this worm!''
Mom, though she's not what anyone would on her worst day call big, didn't have any choice but to catch me. She staggered back, gasping, ``Chuck!''
He was already there, catching us, wrapping us up in his arms, keeping anybody from hitting the ground. He rocked us back and forth, like when we slow-danced in the living room. He was breathing hard, and I felt that warm, wet air tickling against the top of my skull as he said, ``What you got to remember, Luce, is the coming home. That's all that matters. This leaving is nothing. The time away is nothing. You just remember the coming home.''
He sounded like a hypnotist. A hopeful magician.
I squirmed, pancaked between the two of them. He didn't know all he thought he knew. He got to go, see everything out there, stuff we could only dream of. The whole time he was out there in the geography, we sat here, same as always. Waiting.
``I got to hit the dusty trail,'' he said, easing up on us, then squeezing in one last-second bear hug. ``Hit it before it hits back.'' Then he let us go. He chucked me under the chin. ``Remember that, Luce,'' he said. ``Always throw the first punch.''
He grabbed the sides of Mom's face the way Pepe Le Pew goes after that cat, and he puckered up for a smooch. They did it that way for a second, like cartoons, but then softened up and glued together and got all squirming and mashy. Right in the street. Mom and Dad were the only parents in the world who kissed like that. It was gross but fun to watch.
I slipped up alongside Dad and shoved the two dollars into his back pocket. Still all vacuum-cleanered to Mom, he rubbed the top of my head. Then he was away from both of us, bounding into his truck. He fired the engine, revving it a couple of times. He stuck his arm out the window, but not his head, not looking back. Starting away, he yelled, ``After a while, alligator!''
I chased him down the middle of the street, him watching in the mirror, going just fast enough that I stayed a foot or two behind the bumper no matter how hard I ran. ``Later, crocodile!''
``Adios, amoebas!'' he called.
``See you, see you, wouldn't want to be you!''r He elbowed up his arm in a crisp ninety-degree, signaling right as he swung left at the corner, heading for the one-way. The two old dollar bills fluttered out into the street, and he accelerated, honking and waving and disappearing, leaving me gasping. Leaving me behind.
I stood alone in the middle of the street, hands on my knees, feeling each breath rasping in and out of my lungs until I heard Mom calling from in front of our house. ``Lucy, get out of the street! You're stopping traffic.''
There was a car idling in front of me, Dr. Ivers up ungodly early for some reason. I reached down for Dad's money, then stepped aside. Dr. Ivers smiled and waved, driving away, too.
I turned and walked back to Mom. ``You're the traffic stopper in this family,'' I muttered when I got close enough I didn't have to shout. I couldn't believe she'd told him what I'd said. A violation of our number one unspoken rule.
She put her arm around my shoulders. ``Would you look at the two of us? All dressed up and no place to go.''
I was wearing a gray logoless sweatshirt, the sleeves cut off. Jeans. Running shoes.
She gave me a friendly shake. ``Let's you and me go out and do up the town. Put on the Ritz.'' She started down the cracked driveway to our narrow, ancient garage, bending low and grunting as she reached to throw up the door. We skinnied around each side of our car, a sun-dulled blue Corvair Dad had found for us---``Spell it! It's practically Corvette!''
Mom shoehorned herself in, and by the time I did the same on my side, she already had her visor down, checking herself in the mirror she had tacked up there with clothespins. She smacked her lips, puckering in between, then gave up, reaching into her purse for her lipstick. As she worked it expertly around, I copied her contortions with my own lips. ``No doubt about it,'' she said, ``that man kisses like a plunger.''
``Where are we going, Mom?'' I asked. Put on the Ritz? We lived in Great Falls, Montana, what Mom called the last stronghold of the 1950s. It wasn't quite six in the morning.
``Tracy's, maybe,'' Mom said. ``They're twenty-four/seven.''
It was a tiny diner with a metal-plated jukebox on each table. The waitresses wore paper hats and smoked cigarettes they left curling smoke on the counter before bringing your food to the table.
0``Maybe we should change into something nicer,'' I said.
Mom grinned. ``Swines before pearls,'' she said, and backed out of the dark garage, careful not to break off the side mirror again. ``Order whatever you want,'' she called out, waving her arms. ``Anything at all.'' Then, in a side whisper, she said, ``You got his money, didn't you?''
``Every last red dime,'' I said, both of us already filling in for Dad, saying whatever we thought he might. ``Gutted him like a wish.''